The US military has entered a period of historic change after more than a decade of war, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. America has ended the war in Iraq; it is implementing an effective transition and drawdown in Afghanistan; and it has seriously weakened Al Qaida’s leadership in the fight against terrorism.
As a result of these efforts and the reality of budget constraints, the US has developed a new defence strategy for the 21st century — one that emphasises agility, technology and force projection. The US has begun to focus on the challenges and opportunities of the future and it is clear that many of them lie in Asia.
After all, the global centre of gravity is steadily shifting towards the Asia-Pacific, tying America’s future prosperity and security ever more closely to this fast-growing region. At the same time, increasing military spending, challenges to maritime security, non-traditional threats — ranging from piracy to terrorism — and the destruction wrought by natural disasters are making the region’s security environment more complex. For these reasons, the US Department of Defence is implementing a “rebalance” of America’s strategic focus and posture to the Asia-Pacific.
The vast majority of America’s rebalance comes in non-military areas like trade and development. This is part of a broad effort directed by President Barack Obama to deepen America’s diplomatic, development, economic, security and cultural engagement across the region. For the Department of Defence, the rebalance is about helping to ensure that the US and all countries in the region continue to benefit from a secure and prosperous Asia-Pacific — as we have for nearly 70 years.
This effort rests on four pillars. The first is America’s long-standing commitment to a set of principles that helped advance peace and security in the region in the 20th century. As a Pacific power, the US has an abiding national interest in a just international order that emphasises states’ rights and responsibilities and their fidelity to the rule of law; open access for all to the global commons of sea, air, space and cyberspace; unimpeded economic development and commerce and resolving conflict without the use of force. These principles can and should underpin strong economic, diplomatic, and military relationships throughout the region today.
The second pillar is a special priority of mine: Modernising and strengthening America’s alliances and partnerships in the region, and developing new ones. That mission has led me to travel to Asia four times since becoming Secretary of Defence in July 2011. It has led the US to devote more resources and effort to building its partners’ capabilities and improving interoperability between the US military and forces in the region. America is also working to identify opportunities to deepen our cooperation in information security, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and other high-tech frontiers — from cyberspace to outer space.
For example, the US is developing a new bilateral plan for the US-Japanese alliance’s future roles, missions and capabilities and reached an agreement to position an additional missile-defence radar to protect against the North Korean threat. On my recent visit to Australia, we signed an agreement to relocate a space surveillance radar to western Australia. And, in South Korea, our Strategic Alliance 2015 agreement charts a course for the future across a range of fronts, including cooperation in space and cyberspace, intelligence and information sharing and command arrangements.
Moreover, America is focused like never before on working with its allies and partners in South and Southeast Asia. With India, we have developed an unprecedented bilateral initiative that will streamline our export processes and deepen our defence trade and co-production. We are also pursuing new areas of cooperation in defence exercises, such as submarine salvage and rescue, reflecting this key partnership’s growing dynamism.
In Southeast Asia, we are expanding our engagement with the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean), increasing bilateral engagement with traditional allies and partners like Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and developing our cooperative partnerships with Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
One of the most important ways to enhance alliances and partnerships is through joint training and exercises. During 2012, the US increased both the size and the number of bilateral and multilateral exercises across the Asia-Pacific region. For example, the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise was the largest ever, including more than 42 ships and 25,000 personnel from 22 countries, while the US and China staged their first-ever maritime counter-piracy exercise near the Horn of Africa. In 2013, America will engage for the first time in multilateral military exercises led by Asean, while China has been invited to send ships to RIMPAC 2014.
In support of this increased engagement — aimed not at establishing new permanent bases, but rather at building stronger allies and partners through a greater rotational presence — the third pillar of America’s rebalancing is to enhance its presence across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
In Northeast Asia, where the US military has traditionally maintained a strong presence, America is modernising its posture. This year, the US deployed F-22s and MV-22 Ospreys to Japan and reached an important agreement to relocate its forces on Okinawa. America continues to develop Guam as a strategic hub and plans to establish fully capable Marine Air-Ground Task Forces in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. Meanwhile, the US is retaining and upgrading US Army capabilities in Korea.
The US military is also rebalancing within the Asia-Pacific region to place more emphasis on new partnerships in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Last spring, 200 US Marines arrived in Darwin, Australia, for the first six-month rotation to serve and train alongside Australian troops and operate with regional partners. America also increased the number and frequency of US Air Force aircraft rotating through Northern Australia. Finally, America agreed with Singapore to deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships there on a rotational basis to join it and other countries in the region for exercises, training and responses to challenges.
The final pillar of the US rebalance is force projection. America plans to have 60 per cent of its naval fleet based in the Pacific by 2020 and America’s defence budget has preserved, and even boosted, investment in new and more capable assets needed in the Pacific theatre. America’s spending plan prioritises the development and fielding of the newest, most capable technology, including Virginia-class submarines, fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 fighters, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, new electronic warfare and communications capabilities and improved precision weapons and cruise missiles. These are some of the capabilities that will maintain our forces’ ability to project power should our access and freedom of action be challenged.
These four pillars reflect the Department of Defence’s comprehensive approach to contribute to a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century. This rebalance is a long-term strategy and in 2012, we laid a foundation for its long-term success.
Nevertheless, questions and misperceptions remain. Some have concluded that the rebalance is directed at China. It is not. A key component of the rebalance is a healthy, stable and continuous military-to-military relationship with China, based on sustained and substantive dialogue that enhances America’s ability to work together and to avoid any kind of miscalculation.
I had a successful visit to China in September and I am clear-eyed but optimistic about the future of this important military-to-military relationship. As the US seeks stronger defence ties with China and countries throughout the region, its expects and welcomes other countries’ efforts to build ties with China and the US alike.
Some argue that instability and turmoil in the Middle East will prevent us from implementing the rebalance. Our new defence strategy and budget makes clear that it will not. The US military is a global force that can walk and chew gum at the same time. Even as America rebalances towards the Asia-Pacific region, it will retain a significant presence in the Middle East to deter aggression and promote stability.
Finally, some question whether, given America’s fiscal constraints, the US military can make the investments necessary to implement the rebalance. To be sure, the US is facing a new fiscal reality and the defence budget must be reduced by $487 billion (Dh1.79 trillion) over the next decade. However, budgets are about priorities and we have clearly made the Asia-Pacific region a priority. The US has a detailed plan for the rebalance in its budget and it has made decisions that will make its military more cost-effective, efficient and productive.
America is and always will be a Pacific nation. The US has fought and spilled precious blood to give the nations in the Asia-Pacific the opportunity to achieve prosperity and security. The US remains committed to improving the lives of all of those who are part of the Pacific family of nations. The purpose of the rebalance is to fulfil that commitment to the dream of a better and more secure 21st century.
— Project Syndicate, 2012
Leon E. Panetta is the US Secretary of Defence.